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The chef with the Indian Accent

Recent winner of TV top chef contest Foodistan, this 37-year-old is infusing Indian food with childhood memories, global flavours. Rushina Munshaw-Ghildiyal writes.

india Updated: Apr 15, 2012 13:03 IST
Rushina Munshaw-Ghildiyal

At Indian Accent, churan-flavoured popsicles are served in toy pressure-cookers, chutneys are flavoured with aam papad and deserts topped with phantom cigarettes.

If the sound of this makes you feel like a child in candyland, that's the idea.

"I draw from all over to trigger memories," says chef Manish Mehrotra, 37, whose menu has won critical acclaim since the restaurant opened at New Delhi's The Manor hotel in March 2008. "A lot of my food is inspired by my early food memories."

Recently, Mehrotra drew on those memories to create Haji Ali Sitaphal Cream (inspired by hostel 'night-outs' in Mumbai), Crab Claw Rasam (which he first ate at his wife's house before marriage), and Chironji Makhane ki Kheer (a childhood favourite, prepared on Janmashtami) - dishes that won him the Foodistan title last month, in a reality TV show that pitted top chefs from India and Pakistan against each other.

Born in Bihar, Mehrotra says he always wanted to be a chef and experiment in the creative space of the kitchen.

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Sixteen years after he graduated from the Institute of Hotel Management, Catering Technology and Applied Nutrition in Dadar, that creativity has bloomed at Indian Accent in the form of naans stuffed with blue cheese, sev puri garnished with wasabi peas and shots of Intense Makai Shorba.

The food - Mehrotra calls it 'contemporary Indian' - is a far cry from the simple, earthy fare that infused his formative years in Patna.

It is, in fact, a virtual map of his culinary journey through the years.

Mehrotra began his career at Thai Pavilion at the Taj President, Cuffe Parade. Here he learnt about flavours, ingredients and techniques outside traditional Indian cuisine and built a foundation in pan-Asian cuisine.

He went on to head the kitchens of Tamarai in London and Oriental Octopus in Delhi, Noida and Lavasa, Pune, for the Delhi-based Old World Hospitality company.

Along the way, he says, he learnt to treat vegetables with a gentler hand.

"My menus are also inspired by my travels across the country and around the world," says Mehrotra, "by the people I meet and the meals I eat in homes and at street corners, all finally garnished with my own dashes of whimsy."

Thus, for instance, the Indian Accent Paani Puri comes filled with couscous, the puris poised atop shot glasses containing five different types of flavoured water. And for the main course there is basa fish baked in patra ni machchi masala-infused butter and served wrapped in banana leaves held together with a wooden clip.

As careful as Mehrotra is about conceptualisation and presentation, he is also extremely particular about feedback, monitoring the plates that come back as carefully as those that go out.

"Why would someone pay for food and not eat it? Either they didn't like it or they are full," he says. "I have also found that, if a guest sends something back, 6.5 times out of 10, there is something wrong with the dish."